In the essay “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell describes an internal conflict between his personal morals and his duty to his country?moreover, his duty to the white man’s reputation. Orwell’s decision to kill the elephant is a direct result of oppression. Oppression perhaps goes deeper than the average man would imagine, noticeably hindering even the lives of the oppressors. Orwell’s moral values are challenged in many different ways, ironically enough while he too was the oppressor. Orwell’s extraordinary style is never displayed well than through “Shooting an Elephant,” when he seemingly blends his style and subject into one. Orwell expresses his conflicting views regarding imperialism through three examples of oppression by his country, by the Burmese, and by himself on the Burmese.
The British author George Orwell, pen name for Eric Blair, achieved prominence in the 1940’s as the author of two brilliant satires. Orwell was born in 1903 in the Indian Village Motihari, which lies near the border of Nepal. Orwell’s family led a relatively privileged and fairly pleasant existence, in helping to administer the Empire. Although his family was not very wealthy, Orwell later described them as lower-upper-middle class. With some difficulty, Orwell’s parents sent their son to a private preparatory school in Sussex at the age of eight. At the age of thirteen he won a scholarship to Wellington, and soon after another to Eaton, the famous public school. He wrote documentaries, essays, and criticism during the 1930’s and later established him as one of the most important and influential voices of the century.
The style of this essay is generally very simple, but it is strong enough to merit numerous interpretations. Orwell uses metaphors to do this: “They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick”. Oppression is shown by Orwell through the burden of servitude placed upon him by England: ” All I knew was that I was struck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beast who tried to make my job impossible”. Though Orwell’s handling of his subject is detailed, in the end, he subtly condemns imperialism. Orwell finds himself in a moral predicament no different than the ones placed on the white men in the East. Orwell justifies his actions, “solely to avoid looking a fool,” driven by the instigation of the Burmese.
Imagine yourself in Orwell’s position: hundreds of Burmese, who speak no English, like an army following behind you, misunderstanding your purpose and expecting a climactic death. What would you do? How would you react? The natives hinder Orwell’s intentions and thrust upon him their own. Orwell himself, against his will, has oppressed many. British Imperialism dominated not only Burma, but also other countries that did not belong to England. At the time it may appear, from the outside, that the officers were helping the Burmese because they too were against oppressors; however, from the inside, they too were trying to annex other countries,: “I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom he destroys”. In Orwell’s case the coolie killed by the elephant represents the invasion of Burma by the British. Just as no one can predict the next victim of the elephant, also no one can predict the next victim of the British.
Since the coolie is killed it gives Orwell a justifiable reason to kill the elephant. Orwell does not want to be thought of as British, but he does not want to be thought the fool either. George Orwell makes his decision to shoot the elephant appear to be reasonable. Underneath it all he questions his actions just as he questions those of the British. Orwell despised both the British Empire as well as the Burmese natives, making everything more complicated and complex. The elephant represents imperialism; therefore, the slow destruction of the elephant must represent the slow demise of British Imperialism.
We can see that Orwell doesn’t like himself much because of this incident,
and can only wonder how many more incidents such as this, possibly more
serious in nature, could have occurred solely to avoid looking a fool. This summary really made me realize that by his country, by the Burmese, and by himself on the Burmese, Orwell expresses his conflicting views regarding imperialism through oppression.